…we can remain physically distant without social isolation.
There is no doubt we are living through unprecedented times. The threat of COVID-19 and the necessity of social distancing has changed how we work, educate our children, and move through the world. And yet, if there is a silver lining in this public health crisis, it is the opportunity to reconnect and recalibrate our relationships with those we love.
For many of us, social distancing has also meant literal separation from those we love. This can create a profound sense of loneliness for all of us, especially older generations. But remember: in this era of user-friendly technology, we can remain physically distant without social isolation. To combat this sense of loneliness, perhaps you are already ramping up the phone calls and video chats to grandparents and others.
California Governor Gavin Newsom has challenged all of us to “meet the moment.” For us at The Oral History Center, that means sharing our expertise as listeners and communicators with you. With our backgrounds in oral history life interviews, we want to offer tips and question prompts so you can have more engaging and meaningful conversations with the important people in your life – even at a distance.
What we’ve learned through our experience as interviewers is that sometimes the simple act of listening can bring a great deal of comfort. Even if your questions illicit the same stories with familiar cadences, we’ve seen how just sharing the story can bring joy to the teller. And there is a possibility that you will learn something new each time! Listen for new words or framing in every telling.
But how to get the conversation started? Here are some major storytelling themes we use to frame oral history life interviews, as well as some example questions to get you started:
- Home and Place
- What was it like growing up in ______ in the 19___s?
- What did your neighborhood look like?
- Childhood Passions
- You trained hard to be a ballet dancer. Can you tell me what that was like?
- Holidays and Traditions
- What did Thanksgiving dinner look like at your house?
- Home and Place
- Elementary and Secondary
- Vocational or College
- You graduated from college in 19____. What did you do next?
- What made you choose to become a _____?
- How do you think your background as a ______ impacted your work as a _____?
- Personal Relationships
- What do you remember about your grandparents?
- What kind of values did you acquire from your parents?
- How did you meet Grandpa? What did you like about him?
- Where did you go on dates?
- Tell me about your wedding.
- Historic Events
- What do you remember about the moonwalk?
- I know you were at Woodstock in 1969. What was that like?
Pro tip: If you hear a new or particularly interesting story, follow up with more questions! For example: I’m not familiar with that term/event. Could you tell me more about what that is?
Pro tip: Be an active listener! Even over the phone or a video call, listen to what your family member is saying and engage with it. You may even listen for what they are not saying. Is there something you think they don’t want to talk about, or a gap in the story you can help fill with another question?
Pro tip: Try parroting their words! For example: You said you had the time of your life. Why was that?
Pro tip: Try to ask open-ended questions! You don’t want to ask a question where the only possible answer is “yes” or “no.” That doesn’t make for very stimulating conversation. Try questions like: Can you tell me about x? Tell me more about y. Can you describe z?
Pro tip: Some of the most rewarding answers follow reflective questions that ask the storyteller to make meaning of their past, sometimes in conjunction with their present. These questions usually come at the end of a discussion around a particular topic or story. For example: What did that mean to you? Or: Wow, you’ve worked so many different places! What connections do you see between these jobs?
We at The Oral History Center value the time and conversations we share with folks in our professional work, and treasure these moments in our personal lives. With these tips and question prompts, we hope you can keep connection and conversation alive in your own lives. After all, storytelling is a great antidote to isolation.
Looking for new podcast recommendations as you shelter in place? If you are like me, you are burning through your regular playlist at an alarming speed. To cut through the boredom, I’m sharing one of my favorite podcasts: Past Present.
Past Present is a weekly podcast hosted by a panel of historians who give historical context for a variety of contemporary topics. Fittingly, the show’s motto is “Hindsight is foresight.” Historians Nicole Hemmer, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, and Neil J. Young cover topics that range from Greta Thunberg and youth climate activism to the appeal of Marie Kondo to the political power of women’s rage. Hosts bring their own academic specialties and personal interests to the discussions, which means I always walk away with different perspectives and new information.
As Past Present pulls inspiration from popular culture and the news of the day, lately the show has been covering topics such as face masks, quarantines, and just this week cabin fever. This is my third week working from home, and I’ve certainly been feeling restless in a way that even daily walks don’t solve. Past Present host Nicole Hemmer validated that indescribable feeling when she said that cabin fever may not be a disease, but it is “a measurable set of symptoms” with “restlessness, sleepiness, and irritation.” Check, check, and check.
The hosts also share that the term “cabin fever” may have started in the early twentieth century, but it was a recognizable concept in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Think ship-bound sailors or people stuck in unelectrified cabins during snowstorms. But Neil Young points out that “as isolated as we are,” the twenty-first century allows for digital connectivity that is unique from all previous eras in “human history.”
Now, I recognize that it is pretty meta that as I shelter in place at home and start to get a little stir crazy, I look to a discussion on the history of cabin fever as a cure. But I find this oddly comforting. Not only is cabin fever not a new phenomenon born in the time of COVID-19, compared to my ancestors, I am sitting pretty with Internet access and the ability to contact the outside world – even though I may not yet know when this physical isolation will end.
And then, of course, there is my favorite Past Present segment, “What’s Making History,” when hosts point to current events and popular culture as historical trends to keep an eye on. This week, come for the cabin fever conversation, stay for Neil Young’s discussion of what’s behind the new teenage trend of “Virginity Rocks” t-shirts. I had no idea, either.
I hope you love Past Present as much as I do. Treat yourself to a few minutes of listening that’s informative, entertaining, and distracting. Enjoy!
What are YOU listening to? Share with us on Twitter: @BerkeleyOHC
If you’re an instructor looking for remote learning tools or a scholar or student looking for primary sources, you might just find it in our online archive.
Add some spice to your research papers, lectures, remote lessons
We’re sheltering in place, the libraries are closed, and we all need to adjust to this new “normal” of social distancing and remote learning and teaching. It may at times feel daunting to shift gears on such a tight timeline. A bit of good news in all this uncertainty: the UC Berkeley Oral History Center has an online archive of more than 4,000 interviews on a multitude of topics.
So if you’re…
- A professor, teacher, or high school administrator looking for remote learning tools
- A scholar, grad student, undergrad, or high school student looking for primary sources for your paper
…you might just find it in our online archive.
Primary sources with pizzazz — and ed tech
The Oral History Center (OHC) has oral history interviews on a countless number of topics, including science, engineering, medicine, business, politics, the environment, the economy, social movements, women’s rights, gay rights, art, music, literature, education, philanthropy, athletics, UC Berkeley history, and more.
The focus is on US history, California, and the West, plus some interviews with an international focus (such as global mining, communism). Information in interviews stretch back to the late 19th/early 20th century and also address some of our most recent social and political issues, including same-sex marriage and culturally competent medical care.
We’re committed to open access and all of our transcripts and interpretive materials are accessible online at no cost, whether you are a scholar, student, or member of the general public. We also have video and audio clips for many. Some transcripts are even synched to the full videotaped interview, specifically for the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front Collection (interviews with “View OHMS video” have this capability).
How to search the collection
There are several ways to search the vast collection.
If you know what you’re looking for, select Advanced Search and enter key words in the full text feature. Use quotation marks for an exact match. Check “Limit to records that include audio/video” if you want to be sure there’s video for the transcript. The full text search is particularly useful to find gems in our individual interviews on a myriad of topics. For example, seventy-seven oral histories mention the word “quarantine” and three “coronavirus.”
You can browse projects to see what’s in the entire collection by specific subjects.
You can scan our collection guides, for some guidance on locating interviews on topics that cross projects, such as African American history, veterans, and the Holocaust.
The OHC also has a podcast series, The Berkeley Remix, featuring audio recordings of our interviews on a wide range of topics, both historical and on current events, ideal for distance learning. Topics include:
AIDS and San Francisco: 6 episodes on the epidemic and community response
Engineering and Computer Science: on the microchip, open access, and Silicon Valley
Food: on the farm-to-table food movement
Parks and the Environment: 3 episodes on on preserving the land, women in non-traditional gender roles, and fighting the 1998 Oakland Hills Fire
Preserving the Coast: on saving Lighthouse Point in Santa Cruz
UC Berkeley student housing: on women’s equality, disabled student access, and desegregation
Women in Politics: 6 episodes on suffrage through the 1990s
Prestigious $500 prize for UC Berkeley undergrads
UC Berkeley undergrads who use OHC’s oral history interviews for a UC Berkeley class paper in any discipline are eligible for a $500 prize for outstanding primary source research. Students — you don’t need to write a separate paper; just submit one from a class where you have used the interviews. Instructors — if you’re teaching a UC Berkeley class where students need to write a research paper, please let them know about the Friesen Prize.
By Deborah Qu
“It was naive, but it wasn’t as naive as it sounds.” — Lucy Sprague Mitchell on chasing her dream to expand career prospects for women
One hundred and fifty years ago in 1870, the UC Regents first declared that the university’s doors were open to women students, giving them the opportunity to pursue a higher education. Access to student facilities, housing, and resources were still far from equal for women. Thus began an era where thousands of young women pioneered for positive change, making their mark on the university, as well as transforming society at large. One of these women was Lucy Sprague Mitchell, the first dean of women from 1906–1912, and one of the first women instructors in UC Berkeley’s Department of English. Mitchell, an advocate for educational reform, had observed that “public opinion reacts very slowly. And there’s always been something that irritates me, and that is the voices against are so much louder than the voices for.” Yet her unrelenting optimism and her passion for education allowed her to introduce a more holistic framework for child learning and expand career prospects for women outside the limited field of teaching.
Born in 1878, Lucy Sprague Mitchell grew up in a traditional household where any sort of play was seen as “a waste of time.” In a 1962 interview with the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library, Mitchell recalls a multitude of happy childhood memories, but they were also mixed with conflicting feelings of unworthiness and loneliness caused by her family’s strict Puritan modes of discipline. It is possible that these childhood learning experiences were great influencers in her later experimental work in education. In her autobiography, Two Lives: The Story of Wesley Clair Mitchell and Myself, she explained how she believed that the entire learning process is not complete without the “intake” of experience transforming into an “outgo,” or some living, creative action caused from the development. Perhaps these mixed childhood memories had also inspired her to take positive action through childhood education reform.
After graduating from Radcliffe College, Lucy Sprague Mitchell was appointed as Berkeley’s first dean of women at only age 23. In her oral history, Mitchell recalled a conversation she had with the university President Benjamin Ide Wheeler. His instructions were “to find out what needs to be done and to do it.” While terrified and confused, this is exactly what Mitchell did. As dean of women, Mitchell did not succumb to the “motherly” role to students that was expected of her in the early 1900s. Instead her youthful perspective allowed her to expand beyond the traditional housing and counseling needs to truly connect with students at Cal. She initiated community trips, poetry readings, and sex education discussions. She organized Parthenia, which she fondly called greek for “women of the Parthenon,” a performative showcase about various historical women and imagined female characters.
In her oral history, Mitchell reflected on why she wanted to leave her role as dean of women; Mitchell explained that her interests truly were rooted in education, not administration. During her years working with women students, she had become, she says, “extremely concerned about the lack of professional training for women excepting in the field of teaching. She explained how “not everybody is equipped to be a teacher, nor wants to be a teacher.” At the time, Mitchell found it jarring that over 90 percent of the women students she surveyed had planned to become a teacher after graduation. While Cal was progressive for its time, teaching was the most socially acceptable profession and “the only thing that the University offered to women.” In retrospect, Lucy Sprague Mitchell believed that her real reason for requesting a leave from Berkeley “was to try to explore different fields of work that women could enter and for which the University could train them.”
This disaffection inspired innovation. Lucy Sprague Mitchell brought the issue of limited education for women to six social organizations in New York, completing statistical fieldwork from women working in nursing, to labor legislation about city tenements, to public schools. Her exposure to public school education had such a profound effect on Mitchell that she became an educator resource for teachers throughout 1922–1955. She began developing experimental methods about childhood education and classroom procedure that promoted creative expression and holistically fulfilled a child’s emotional, physical, and mental needs. Her emphasis on “relationship teaching” and “active learning” over memorization helped shape the way for “social studies,” a course widely studied in American classrooms today. Her focus on the learning environment was unorthodox at the time, and it led her to new paradigms of using childhood maturity instead of age to measure emotional intellectual development. She founded Bank Street College of Education in New York as a graduate student teacher training institution in 1916 based on this same philosophy.
From my perspective as an undergraduate student at Cal, Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s life story teaches me that to truly orchestrate change, we should not just be focusing on the various problems of the present, but rather dreaming about all the future potential. The oral history interview allowed Lucy Sprague Mitchell to recount the early dream she had formed working with Cal students in her late 20s: to provide opportunities for young women to pursue rich and nuanced fields of study. This dream certainly did not go to waste. As a young college woman with a wide selection of majors to choose from, I am grateful that she and many others helped pave the way. Reflecting on this vision for women, Lucy Sprague Mitchell said, “Now that sounds very naive. It was naive, but it wasn’t as naive as it sounds.”
Deborah Qu is a first year undergraduate student who intends to study psychology. As a part of the celebration of 150 years of women at Berkeley, Deborah is researching the Oral History Center’s vast archive to identify women in the collection with a relationship to UC Berkeley.
Howardena Pindell is a painter and mixed media artist, as well as a professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook. She earned a BFA from Boston University in 1965 and an MFA from Yale University in 1967. Pindell worked at the Museum of Modern Art from 1967 to 1979, where she held several positions, including exhibit assistant, curatorial assistant, and associate curator. She cofounded the A.I.R. Gallery in 1972. Pindell has taught in the Department of Art at State University of New York at Stony Brook since 1979.
Pindell’s interview is the first in a series of oral histories with prominent African American artists for the Getty Research Institute’s (GRI) African American Art History Initiative. These oral histories complement the GRI’s ongoing work to collect, preserve, and interpret the art and legacies of these artists.
Pindell was born in 1943 and grew up in segregated Philadelphia. Thanks to the support of her parents and her demonstrable talent, Pindell had a great deal of exposure to art early in life. She went on to study at Boston University and Yale University, then moved to New York in the 1960s. In New York Pindell began working at the Museum of Modern Art while also continuing to paint. She recalled, “…I was working five days a week, and I was used to having natural light, and I didn’t have natural light.” As natural light is so important to a painter, and her work schedule cut into daylight hours, Pindell started experimenting with mixed media in these years – a practice she has continued to expand.
Perhaps Pindell’s best-known work is Free, White and 21, a video performance piece from 1980 that is a commentary on her experiences with racism and sexism. Listen to Pindell recount the logistics of creating the piece.
Free, White and 21 also relates to many of Pindell’s ongoing challenges with racism in the women’s movement and the art world at large. Though she was a cofounder of A.I.R. Gallery in 1972 – the first artist-run gallery for women in the United States – as an African American woman, she often felt marginalized in discussions about how to expand opportunities for women artists.
Pindell also spoke at length about her work as a professor of art, and her approach to teaching. Having been academically trained, she worked with many different professors and knew what teaching styles she would and would not emulate. Further, she saw working with students as important to her practice as a working artist. Pindell explained, “I think teaching helps me a lot, just so it keeps me fresh, because I can help the younger students – and in some cases, older students – with their work with formal issues. That keeps me informed about how I should think about my work, as well.”
Pindell’s story highlights the challenges of being a working artist, the importance of teaching others, fighting racism and sexism in the art world and beyond, as well as the long-overdue recognition of African American artists.
To learn more about Howardena Pindell’s life and work, check out her oral history!
From the Director — March 2020
From all of us at the Oral History Center, we are wishing you our best in these challenging times. We hope that you’re doing your best to get through the coming days, and above all, you and your loved ones are staying safe and healthy.
In a recent oral history, George Miller discussed the idea of the dreaded “Black Swan” event that might strike at a moment’s notice, leaving destruction and disruption in its wake. But Miller has artfully crafted a healthy sense of informed detachment and thus always used these events as an opportunity for learning and reflection. Perhaps the greatest lesson from the Black Swan events he experienced in the world of finance was that we always came out the other side — maybe a bit bruised but ready to face another day. So, as many of us sit at home, self-isolating, I invite you to take a break from the constant news feed of what is happening right now and instead spend some time in the past. Delve into the OHC archive of transcripts and recordings and expose yourself, for example, to many individuals who achieved great things in their lives but who each experienced Black Swan events of their own. Trial and turbulence, patience and perseverance.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the most remarkable of these stories come from women we’ve interviewed, in particular those women who broke glass ceilings in the workplace and the realm of politics. We’re currently developing a database documenting the hundreds of women we’ve interviewed over the years who were connected to the University of California — as part of the 150 Years of Women at Berkeley celebration. And we continue to contribute to this history with plenty of recent interviews, including female students who were active in the SLATE organization on campus in the 1950s and 60s. And then many more interviews with women who persevered while working in support of the arts (Kathleen Dardes), the environment (Michelle Perrault), and public service (Anne Halsted). You’ll see a handful of those stories referenced in this newsletter but I encourage you to just jump in, browse the collection (our Projects page is the best way to do this), and allow the thousands of life stories we’ve collected give you reassurance, perspective, and company.
Finally, we’ve made the decision to postpone our annual Oral History Commencement in which we invite our interviewees to campus for a lively celebration of oral histories completed in the past year. We still want to express our gratitude to our narrators, so stayed tuned.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director of the Oral History Center
They’ve made a difference at UC Berkeley. Who are you thinking of right now?
The Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library has been around since 1953 and since then we’ve been documenting the history of UC Berkeley. Is there a Berkeley faculty, administrator, or staff person — past or present — who’s made an impact on campus? This is your opportunity to nominate someone who has made an outstanding contribution to campus life or to the teaching, research, or public service mission of the university — and we’ll interview the selected candidate for posterity. This oral history honor has been made possible by a generous endowment from the class of ’31. (Nomination form)
Past narrators (interviewees) have included Edith Kramer, director emeritus of the Pacific Film Archive, and Susan Ervin-Tripp, Psychology professor, Ombuds, and advocate for women’s equity on campus. Last year’s awardee was Susan L. Graham, professor emerita, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (oral history in progress).
Nominations for the “Class of ’31 Oral History” are due by May 1 and the awardee will be announced in mid-May. If you have any questions, please contact Oral History Center Director Martin Meeker at email@example.com (Nomination form). Selection criteria for nominees include willingness of the nominee to participate, OHC interviewer expertise, uniqueness and rarity of the nominee’s story and level of contribution to campus life, and the generation of the nominee.
Documenting UC Berkeley’s contributions through oral history
The Oral History Center has conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews addressing key moments in UC Berkeley university history. Oral history projects about UC Berkeley consisting of multiple interviews include:
Dozens of other interviews of Cal students, faculty, and staff can be found in the collection: Education and University of California – Individual Interviews. Even more interviews of Berkeley alumni and faculty can be found throughout our collection. Interviews include several of the first female students and administrators dating back to the late nineteenth century, as well students, faculty, and staff representing a multitude of disciplines and contributions to UC Berkeley and well beyond. To get a flavor of these UC Berkeley-related interviews, see the following articles on some newly released oral histories:
“They Got Woken Up”: SLATE and Women’s Activism at UC Berkeley, by interviewer Amanda Tewes
“George Leitmann: Engineering Science, Risk, and Relationships at UC Berkeley and Beyond” by interviewer Paul Burnett
And listen to the podcast season, Let There Be Light, about the powerful impact Berkeley’s identity as a public institution has had on student and academic life, and the intertwined history of campus and community.
In Sleeping with the Light On, we explore what home and community has meant to students at Cal, and how accessible spaces have supported social justice movements on and beyond campus.
Berkeley Lightning is about the contributions of UC Berkeley Engineering to the rise of the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.We focus on the development of the first widely used design program for prototyping microchips. Originally designed by and for students, the software spread like lightning in part because Berkeley, as a public institution, made it available free of charge. The world has not been the same since.
Berkeley After Dark is about the connection between the history of farm-to-table eating and the campus community.
For students across the country, college is a time of political awakening. And perhaps no other university has earned its reputation for radical student politics quite like UC Berkeley. Indeed, mid-century political activism around civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the Free Speech Movement has shaped how students, faculty, and administrators experience life at Berkeley today.
However, one important part of Berkeley’s political history that often gets left out of the conversation is the New Left student political party SLATE. SLATE — so named because the group backed a slate of candidates who ran on a common platform for ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California) elections — operated between 1958 and 1966, and ignited a passion for politics in the face of looming McCarthyism and what many perceived as the University of California’s encroachment on student rights to free speech. These students translated political theory they learned in the classroom to action, even when it went against University policies. Perhaps SLATE’s most important ideological contribution to Berkeley’s campus and to other social movements is the “lowest significant common denominator.” This concept allowed the group to form a big tent coalition between Marxists, liberal Democrats, and others by only choosing political positions and actions that the whole group could agree on. As a result, the group became involved with civil rights, labor organizing, and anti-war protests on campus and across California. Most notably, in May of 1960, SLATE and other student activists protested the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings at the San Francisco City Hall. In response to the peaceful sit-in, police blasted students with fire hoses and dragged them down stairs before placing them under arrest. This event was emblematic of SLATE’s commitment to activism, even when it came at personal risk.
In recent years, the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library has conducted a series of interviews with members of SLATE to keep alive memories of the group’s influence on ideology and political infrastructure at UC Berkeley.
An essential part of SLATE’s story is the contributions of its women members. SLATE operated at a time before the women’s movement, but its work became an important introduction to political organizing for a generation of women students at Berkeley. These women were dedicated members of the group, but often felt sidelined in SLATE leadership. And yet, their work helped to change political culture and campus life at Berkeley. Three of these groundbreaking Berkeley women are Cindy Lembcke Kamler, Susan Griffin, and Julianne Morris.
Cindy Lembcke Kamler was just a freshman when she connected with SLATE in the spring of 1958, drawn in by the political ideals of the group dominated by male upperclassmen and graduate students. Susan Griffin and Julianne Morris were among the second generation of SLATE activists and joined the group around the same time in 1960 — after the famous HUAC protest.
All of these women came from politically left families who feared encroaching McCarthyism. Griffin and Morris also had connections to Judaism. These backgrounds helped ignite a political consciousness in these women that led them to SLATE.
Certainly Kamler, Griffin, and Morris’s oral histories contribute to the larger archive of SLATE history, but they also speak specifically to their experiences as women in this group. For instance, Griffin and Morris recalled instances of feeling marginalized and of being left to do what Morris called the “scut work,” like mimeographing fliers and cooking for hungry activists. This work, while essential to maintaining operations, felt to them like gendered tasks. For her part, Kamler doesn’t remember gender discrimination in SLATE. She insisted, “Oh, no, I never made coffee or any of that stuff.” And yet, Griffin recalled that several years later at a meeting of SLATE women in the 1970s,
“We were recounting how there was this prejudice against us and we were never allowed to have leadership positions. And husbands and boyfriends and guys from SLATE showed up at this meeting and started making fun of us and broke the meeting up. They thought that was the end of the story. Little did they know, [laughs] that was just the beginning of the story.”
These tensions came to a head at a 1984 SLATE reunion in which women newly empowered by feminism expressed displeasure with the way they had been treated while working for the campus political group. Many of the men denied there had been discrimination, but others took it to heart and sincerely apologized. Morris explained, “There were a lot of women who were really angry about how it had been. I don’t know that I was angry, in the sense that I really felt it was a different time and one can’t judge one time by another. But there was no question that that’s the way it was, and that’s what kind of was accepted.” Watching these events unfold, Kamler recalled, “I was just sitting there stunned. I didn’t do any of that stuff. I ran for office, I got elected, I was chairperson.”
Indeed, while there may have been invisible barriers for many of the women involved in SLATE, there were still opportunities to grow as individuals and leaders. Kamler ran for second vice president in the spring of 1958 and lost, but ran again for representative-at-large in spring of 1959 and won. She also served as the chair of SLATE for some time, helping to shape the group’s platform and activist agenda. Even Griffin and Morris were encouraged to run for ASUC office in the early 1960s, and had to learn how to campaign and feel confident in public speaking. Morris especially found running for office to be a formative experience. She remembered,
“And that was, for me, a big experience, because as I said, I was shy in terms of speaking out and I didn’t think that I could do it. And Mike Miller kept urging me to do it and saying, ‘You can do this. I’ll help you if you want, but you can do this! You’re going to be able to go to all of these fraternities and talk to them about ROTC. I just know you can do it.’ So I did it, and I really was very frightened about doing it, and I actually did fine. So that was, for me, kind of a breakthrough, that I was able to do something like that, because it wasn’t easy for me at the time.”
But as their lives became less centered around the UC Berkeley campus, these women drifted away from SLATE. Kamler married and left the group after the spring of 1960. Griffin and Morris had decreased their participation in SLATE or left campus entirely by 1964. And yet, as their oral histories reveal, the experiences these women had as Berkeley undergraduates in this student political party shaped their perspectives about politics and activism for years to come. For both Griffin and Morris, this activism took shape as involvement in the women’s movement. Griffin explained, “The guys may not have known it, but they were training feminist activists in all that period.”
Thinking about the longer arc of SLATE’s impact on the lives of its dedicated members, Morris recalled of a reunion in the 1990s:
“One of the things that we did was that we went around as a group and talked about what our lives were like now. And no one in that whole group went into business. Everybody was an organizer, a teacher, a social worker, a psychologist. It was so interesting that this group of people kind of, in some ways, stayed true to what we all went through in college. It really formed our lives.”
But most importantly, what these women learned from their time with SLATE was the importance of building and sustaining community in activist groups. For Morris, joining SLATE helped her find a place where she belonged. Griffin pointed to organizations of politically like-minded individuals as ways to create belonging and “joy” through an almost spiritual experience of protest.
And yet, the political work of Cindy Lembcke Kamler, Susan Griffin, and Julianne Morris wasn’t just personally fulfilling. For these individuals and generations of other women students, their political activism at UC Berkeley left an indelible mark on the campus. In thinking of this legacy, Morris reflected, “…it was one of the first…of the Left student movements. And I think it influenced a lot of people in that regard…I’m not at all sure that the Free Speech Movement would have happened without SLATE.” She concluded, “I think we were very successful in those years. We got a lot of people elected to the campus political organization, and I think people started thinking, at Cal, a little differently. They got woken up in a way that perhaps they would not have been.”
To learn more about these activist women at Berkeley and the history of this early student political party, check out the Oral History Center’s SLATE Oral History Project.
The Oral History Center launched a new book club in 2019, where we read a book that draws on oral history interviews.
Here’s the discussion questions if you’re following along:
- Narrators in this book often point out where their stories diverge from official narratives about Chernobyl. What role do politics play in telling stories about Chernobyl (even after the fall of the Soviet Union)? And how does this compare to other oral history topics?
- Why is it important that Alexievich shared these stories as oral history “transcripts,” rather than as narrative prose that employs quotes from oral histories?
- Alexievich does not always provide names or much information about narrators. Why do you think this is, and how did that impact the way you read the book?
- If this collection of oral histories has a thesis, what do you think it is? What story is Alexievich trying to tell?
- How did you think about the cultural practice of storytelling in these communities represented in Chernobyl, as compared to Western communities?
- Do you consider this to be oral history? Why or why not?
- What impact did this book have on your perspective about the potential of oral history?
- If you have memories of the Chernobyl disaster, how do these stories compare?
From the OHC Director…
Berkeley students and researchers from around the country reach out to us, especially during Black History Month, interested in our oral histories with African Americans. We always point people in the direction of our African American Faculty and Senior Staff oral history project, otherwise known as The Originals. And there is a good reason we do that: this project features seventeen lengthy and substantive oral histories with leading and pioneering UC Berkeley scholars and administrators (more on this below). But limiting our reference to this single project does service neither to OHC’s full collection nor to the amazing and accomplished individuals interviewed for other projects or simply based on their own merits. In preparation for this month’s column, I spent a day digging into our collection in an effort to uncover a host of hidden gems — in this case, interviews with African Americans whose living memories date to the early 20th century (at least) and offer first-person insights into the life of a Tuskegee airman, the contours of the West Coast jazz scene, the role of women in the Black Panthers, and much more.
The migration of African Americans from the American South to the industrial centers of Northern California in World War II changed those who moved, along with the places they moved to. Drawn to jobs in places like the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California, these migrants set down their roots in the Bay Area. In some interviews from the Rosie the Riveter / World War Two Home Front oral history project, Black “Rosies” tell about their lives in Jim Crow South, about the migration north and the hope for a better life, and about their experiences working in wartime industries and experiencing both greater opportunity but still discrimination based on race. Of the 197 Rosie project oral history, about a quarter are with African American women and men. It is likely folly to pull out one interview from this group, but I’m certain people will be interested in the story of Betty Reid Soskin, who not only worked in Richmond during the war but decades later became a ranger with the National Park Service at the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Site. Reid Soskin continues to work at the park today — at the ripe young age of 98!
One chapter in the Second World War that tragically demonstrated the enduring power of racism was the Port Chicago Disaster of 1944. The majority of the 320 killed and 340 injured in this accidental munitions explosion were African American. The eight oral histories of the Port Chicago project were recorded in the late 1970s and early 1980s by UC Berkeley scholar Robert Allen (whose life history interview we will be released this spring).
Our documentation of the African American experience in the Bay Area continues well past World War II. In a few major projects, Black East Bay residents — and their neighbors — offer accounts of not only the transformation during war but the important decades that followed. The On the Waterfront project follows several narrators through these decades. In the Oakland Army Base project, we hear from several African Americans (Charles Snipes, Cleophas Williams, Davetta Thibeaux, Ellen Wyrick-Parkinson, Elois Thornton, George Bolton, George Cobbs, Gordon Coleman, Grant Davis, Leo Robinson, Louis Harris, Margaret Gordon, Michael Thomas, Monsa Nitoto, Queen Thurston, and Robert Taylor) about their interactions with base, whether as a member of the military service, an employee of the Department of Defense, or as a resident of the nearby community of West Oakland.
The Civil Rights Movement is documented in our collection (though, admittedly, many more oral histories can be found elsewhere, such as at the Library of Congress), particularly as it
manifest in the San Francisco Bay Area in organizations that likely deserve more attention from researchers. Frances Mary Albrier was elected in the 1930s to the local Democratic Party Central Committee (and was welder during the war) and Terea Pittman became a leader of the NAACP (and many other organizations) in the earliest years of the Civil Rights Movement. The Council for Civic Unity, in addition, was established in the 1940s and was an important precursor to the California Fair Employment Practices Commission; Charles Patterson, in his interview, tells about the organization for which he was an intern before becoming a major figure in the foundation world (along with Ira DeVoyd Hall, who was a leader of the San Francisco Foundation). Orville Luster, who was interviewed in 1975, recalled his leadership of the unique Youth for Service organization which taught disadvantaged youth the skills necessary to be successful at work. And there is always a good deal of interest in the interview we hold with Ericka Huggins of the Black Panthers, which was donated to us by Fiona Thompson.
African Americans, not surprisingly, have played key roles in social justice work beyond the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Henry Clark and Ahmadia Thomas and Carl Anthony were interviewed for their groundbreaking work in the area of environmental justice, while Michael Crawford and John Newsome were interviewed for our large project on Freedom to Marry, or the fight to win marriage equality. For our major project documenting the history of the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movements, we interviewed Chester Finn, Victor Robinson, and others.
Movement politics and protest is one way to force change, building institutions and running for elected office are other avenues pursued by African Americans we’ve interviewed over the years. I encourage you to read through two very interesting oral histories with three influential elected officials, Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson and California State Assemblymen William Byron Rumford and Willie Brown (the second part of Brown’s oral history, covering his terms as San Francisco Mayor, will be released this spring). African Americans have made signal contributions to the law, as well: Cecil Poole, the first African American appointed as a United States Attorney in 1961, later became a distinguished federal judge; Allen Broussard rose up through the ranks of city and county courts, eventually joining the California State Supreme Court in 1981 as an associate justice; and to this day, US District Court Judge Thelton Henderson plays an outsized role in the area of law and civil rights.
Law and politics are only two venues in which an individual can make an impact as the ethos of public service runs through many other institutional domains. Born just over 120 years ago, C.L. Dellums led a life of public service through many offices, perhaps most notably as through his decades as Vice President and then President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. After he had already done important work integrating the department, Robert Demmons was appointed the first African American Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department by Willie Brown in 1996. Everett Brandon might be little remembered today, but as a young man, he was a leader in San Francisco’s War on Poverty programs which brought services and employment to thousands of in the city. In recent decades, Joseph Marshall has continued the work of Brandon and others through his Omega Boys Club / Alive and Free service organization in San Francisco. The spirit of public service thrives in the private sector too. Our interviews with Ron Knox and Amanda Brown reveal how one of the largest private health care providers in the country have fought to improve health outcomes for African Americans.
The Oral History Center has long been committed to documenting our culture well beyond politics, law, and public service — we are deeply interested in the arts and the people who create them. Longtime OHC historian Caroline Crawford held an ongoing interest in documenting African American contributions to the arts, particularly music. Her interviews with Allen Smith (jazz trumpeter), Earl Watkins (jazz drummer), Gildo Mahones (jazz composer and pianist), John Handy (saxophonist, composer, and bandleader), and Jimmy McCracklin (blues singer and pianist).
Finally, I want to bring this back around to education, as this is the root of all good things (dare I say) and I think it is essential for a university to document its role in improving society and creating new possibilities. I very much encourage you to take a deep dive into the African American Faculty and Senior Staff project, perhaps beginning with a 20 minute video we produced a few years back. This project, however, was years in the making and while we refer to this group of early faculty and staff as “the Originals,” the truth is that they weren’t the first. Our interview with Archie Williams is a true hidden gem of the collection. Williams attended Berkeley between 1935 and 1939, which was punctuated by an appearance at the infamous 1936 Olympics in Berlin at which he won a gold medal. Although too old to serve in a combat role in World War II, as a certified pilot he trained the Tuskegee airmen! He went on to a career as a respected educator. Marvin Poston was a student at Berkeley at the same time as Williams and eventually became a widely respected optometrist. In 1958, Robert Gibson was the first African American to earn a doctorate in pharmacy at UCSF, where he became a distinguished member of the faculty. Born in 1920, Emmett Rice earned his doctorate in economics at Berkeley in 1954, before being named to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in 1979; it is worth noting that Rice’s daughter is Susan Rice, who served as UN Ambassador and National Security Advisor in the Obama Administration. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Diego State, Del Anderson Handy had a distinguished career in education, culminating with a term as chancellor of San Francisco City College.
These oral histories represent a meaningful slice of OHC’s interviews with African Americans, but surely not the entirety of the collection. The Oral History Center encourages you to not only explore the interviews listed above, but dig even deeper into our collection, honoring the voices of those African Americans we interviewed by reading their words and absorbing their ideas and experiences.
Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director